For the second consecutive election cycle, the competition for seats on the Pinellas County School Board is attracting a crowd.
By Friday, with the primary election more than four months away, 10 candidates had joined the field. Among the latest entrants: a lawyer in the public defender's office, a high school teacher, a former journalist and the owner of a real estate company.
The candidates will vie to fill four seats on the seven-member board. Their prize: a part-time job that many weeks is full-time, a salary of about $35,000 and entry into Pinellas' increasingly challenged education arena. The new board will deal with historic budget shortages, enrollment declines, a new student assignment system and continued questions over graduation rates and the achievement gap.
The heaviest activity lately has been in the north county District 4 race to succeed veteran board member Jane Gallucci, who is running for a County Commission seat.
Chris Hardman, Steven D. Isbitts and Robin L. Wikle recently joined Palm Harbor chiropractor Ken Peluso, who entered the race in January.
Hardman, 55, ran for a School Board seat in 2006. He had the endorsement of the teachers union but finished third in a race dominated by incumbents Nancy Bostock and Mary Russell.
"I just think there's some unfinished business," said Hardman, who teaches algebra and business math at Countryside High. He said the issues in the campaign include how to deal with state budget shortages, the high cost of the district's busing system and the 7:05 a.m. start time for high schools.
Hardman said of his first-period classes: "I see a considerable number of sleepy students."
He said he has a good feel for how School Board decisions affect teachers, administrators and students.
"From what I see," he said, "we don't necessarily have anybody else (in the race) that has experience within the Pinellas County School system."
Isbitts, 39, is a former reporter who in 2003 covered the transition to the Pinellas school choice system for the Tampa Tribune. One of his first stories was a look at what then was a new 7:05 a.m. start time for high schools, a subject that will loom large in his campaign.
"It's just ludicrous in my mind to start it at 7:05," he said. "To me, it's a core priority to fix that, but nobody's making it a priority and it needs to be."
Isbitts said he also would push the district to reach out more to parents and supplement its income with private sector revenue. He suggested putting ads on school property and school buses, saying it could be done tastefully.
Isbitts now works in the sales division at PODS Enterprises Inc. He addressed several misdemeanor worthless check charges on his record from 1995 and 1997.
"These were all checks for under $100 written to local grocery stores. Full restitution was made," he said. "I completely mishandled a complex identity theft situation and let it get to the embarrassing point of making it to the court system. It's a blemish on my record that I learned from greatly."
Wikle, 45, entered the race last month. She worked for nine years in the school system, five of them as a special education teacher. For the past 15 years, she has worked in real estate as the co-owner with her husband of Coldwell Banker Wikle Properties.
A Tarpon Springs resident, she has three sons, ages 21, 19 and 15. The youngest attends Tarpon High, following his older brothers who have graduated.
"I want to make a difference," said Wikle, who has been active in civic and school-related groups. "I want to spend the next season of my life dedicated to the students of Pinellas County."
She said she would focus on pushing the district to get the most out of its budget, increasing parent involvement, getting more businesses involved in apprenticeship programs and being an effective board member.
"Pinellas County's ready for an energetic School Board with some team-building and some bridge-building," Wikle said.
Nina Hayden, a Pinellas public defender for the past five years, last week became a candidate to replace longtime board member Nancy Bostock, who has entered a County Commission race.
Bostock plans to resign her School Board seat to run for the commission, which will trigger an election to fill the remaining two years of her term.
Hayden, 33, said she has seen as a public defender how juveniles' lives can spiral downward when they're charged with crimes.
"I just kind of said to myself, 'I'd love to get ahold of some of these kids before they're in front of a judge,' " she said.
The solutions to the county's low graduation rate may include more tutoring programs, higher teacher salaries and curriculum changes, Hayden said.
"We've got to make school more interesting to them so they can value education and get more excited about it."
Hayden is the only candidate so far running for Bostock's seat.
The race for the District 1 at-large seat has not changed in recent weeks. District 1 incumbent Janet Clark faces challengers Jennifer S. Crockett, Max Loden and Grant Smith.
Carol Cook, the District 5 incumbent, faces no opposition so far.
Thomas C. Tobin can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8923.